I have now volunteered with several reforestation projects in different countries, and one thing I’ve learned is that reforestation is never as simple as just planting trees. One reason is that deforestation causes soil erosion and degradation, and young trees need extra care to ensure survival. An even more important reason, however, is that deforestation always happens for a reason, and until this reason is addressed, any reforestation effort will be temporary or small-scale. But just like deforestation is both an ecological and social issue, so does reforestation carry a potential for both positive ecological and social impact. One organization that has realized this and is using reforestation to aid both the environment and the people is Sadhana Forest.
Sadhana Forest is an international non-profit organization that started in Auroville, India in 2003 and has since expanded to Haiti and Kenya. Recently I volunteered with Sadhana Forest in Haiti, where the organization’s aim is not simply reforestation, but rather supporting long-term food security and fighting malnutrition. This is achieved through giving away and planting indigenous food-bearing trees in kitchen gardens in and around the town of Anse-à-Pitres in South-East Haiti. At the same time the organization is promoting an environmentally conscious lifestyle, for example by minimizing waste and being completely vegan. Local long-term volunteers serve as a link between the organization and the community of Anse-à-Pitres.
Deforestation in Haiti
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and if you start looking into the many reasons behind this extreme poverty, you will certainly come across deforestation. The extent of deforestation is contested, with some saying that only 2% of Haiti is covered by forests and others claiming that 30% may be a more accurate figure. But everyone agrees that Haiti has a long history of deforestation, soil degradation and erosion.
Deforestation in Haiti started during the colonial times, when forests were cleared to make space for agricultural land and to export timber. Today deforestation is mainly driven by the need for charcoal. Charcoal provides some 75% of household energy in Haiti, but the process of making charcoal is very inefficient, meaning that a majority of the wood’s potential energy is wasted. This means that there is constantly a huge demand for wood, and reforesting natural areas is practically impossible until an alternative source of energy is found and widely adopted.
Why is deforestation such a big problem, especially in Haiti? Most of Haiti is mountainous which makes agriculture challenging, and deforestation adds to this challenge by causing top soil – the soil that is high in nutrients, organic matter and micro-organism – to be washed away by rains when there are no forests to hold the soil and to slow down the flow of water. Haiti is also commonly hit by hurricanes, and hurricanes destroy crops more completely if there are no trees protecting the fields. Deforestation also disrupts the water cycle in other ways, making both floods and droughts worse or even causing them. These effects would be damaging everywhere but they are especially so in an already vulnerable country like Haiti, where subsistence farmers are trying to get by on small plots. Add to this climate change that is making all these effects worse and is partially driven by deforestation itself, and you can see why deforestation is a big reason behind Haiti’s persisting poverty.
Improving food security through agroforestry
When Sadhana Forest decided to come to Haiti in 2010, the organization first came to Anse-à-Pitres because of contacts it had with a school in the town. The original plan was to travel to other parts of Haiti to look for a suitable project site, but the team soon realized Anse-à-Pitres was the perfect location. The town of 25,000 inhabitants is located in one of the poorest parts of Haiti, and the surrounding landscape has been largely deforested. It was clear from the beginning, however, that simple reforestation wasn’t going to work, and any unprotected new forests would be cut down as soon as the trees would be large enough to produce charcoal. A different strategy was needed; trees had to be given more value so people wouldn’t cut them down.
The answer was to combine reforestation with another pressing problem in Haiti, namely malnutrition and lack of food security. Food security and deforestation are connected in many ways. As mentioned before, deforestation causes soil erosion and degradation, and as a result it decreases agricultural output. According to studies, only 20% of land in Haiti is arable, and yet 50% of the land is used for agriculture. Plots are subdivided between children with each generation, and today’s increasingly small plots with degraded soil can barely feed a family.
Sadhana Forest gives away food-bearing trees to community members in Anse-à-Pitres and assists in subsequent tree care. Trees are only planted on private land in order to ensure that someone will take care of the tree and protect it from being chopped down. Agroforestry, i.e. the practice of growing trees and crops together, is not new in Haiti, and it has been practiced by small farmers for generations, for good reasons. Food forests are designed to mimic natural ecosystems in order to maximize both productivity and biodiversity. Agroforestry systems have been shown to improve soil quality, increase productivity and to provide resilience to insects and droughts. Food forests are also more resilient to hurricanes, as trees can protect other crops.
Sadhana Forest’s focus in Haiti is on planting indigenous food-bearing trees, especially a tree called Maya nut. Maya nut (known as Chokogou in Haitian Creole) is a large tree that was once abundant in the rainforests of Central America and the Caribbean, but now it is a threatened species. In Haiti, the Maya nut has already become extinct, but it is now being reintroduced by Sadhana Forest. Maya nut contains high amounts of vital nutrients, including fiber, calcium, potassium, folate, iron, zinc, protein and antioxidants. It can be used in many different ways, either fresh, dried or roasted, or turned into flour for bread or porridge. The leaves of the tree can be fed to livestock, while the sap has medicinal properties and the wood can be used as fuel. One full-grown Maya nut tree can produce up to 200 kg of food every year, or enough protein for a family of five, and the tree can remain productive for more than 100 years. Maya nut is also drought-resistant, and the tree binds carbon dioxide into the soil, helping fight climate change.
Because of degraded soil quality and the long dry season, planting trees in Haiti is not simple. Agroforestry requires long-term planning, and young trees need care in order to increase chances of survival. One important part of the tree care promoted by Sadhana Forest is mulching. Mulching essentially means covering the soil (in this case the soil around the trees) so that the soil retains more moisture. Mulch doesn’t necessarily need to be organic, but using organic matter, such as dry leaves or wood chips, improves the soil quality as the organic matter breaks down into soil. In fact, since the soil at Sadhana Forest’s own site in Anse-à-Pitres had been completely washed away by erosion, the organization had to start by creating its own soil from mulch.
Community development through community participation
Sadhana Forest started its project in Haiti in 2010 after the devastating earthquake that left at least 100,000 people dead and affected 3.5 million Haitians. At that time, foreign aid was flooding to Haiti, but most of these organizations relied on short-term aid that has been criticized for creating dependence on aid. Simply giving away food does nothing to promote food security, and it can in fact have a negative effect on local agricultural production. Sadhana Forest came to Haiti for a different reason: to give the country models for long-term sustainability.
Seven years later everyone in Anse-à-Pitres seems to know Sadhana Forest. Word of free trees spreads by word of mouth, and Sadhana Forest has already planted more than 80,000 indigenous food-bearing trees in and around the town. The organization is hoping to get a vehicle soon so they can start expanding further from Anse-à-Pitres.
Local Haitian volunteers are a crucial link between Sadhana Forest and the community of Anse-à-Pitres. These long-term volunteers receive accommodation, food and a stipend as compensation for their time. Sadhana Forest has also held free permaculture courses for the locals in Haitian Creole. Through this work Sadhana Forest acknowledges that reforestation and fighting malnutrition is not just about planting trees, but that education also plays a crucial role. By making locals a vital part of the organization, Sadhana Forest is empowering the community with knowledge about how they can use their land in a way that is productive, self-sufficient and resilient.